CHARLOTTE was the daughter of the Prince Louis, Duke of Bourbon; but her mother, Jacqueline, was a believer in the Reformation doctrines, and she secretly taught them to her children. Charlotte’s father, finding this out, determined to thwart his wife’s influence by sending three of his daughters to convents. For the duke had met with such reverses of fortune that he would have found it hard to provide suitable marriage dowers for his five daughters, so he thought the best way to avoid their marriage and also to keep them Romanists, was to send them to convents. Besides, at that time it was considered quite honorable for ladies of high rank to enter convents, and they lost nothing in social rank by it.
Her mother was heart-broken over this act of her husband, and she wept and prayed much, especially for Charlotte, who was then only thirteen years old. Charlotte instinctively shrank from the life set before her, and begged to be allowed to stay with her mother. Her mother shrewdly prepared a solemn protest against entering the convent, which Charlotte secretly signed, and then Charlotte was compelled to go to the nunnery of Jouarre in Normandy. All her mother could do now was to pray. But the prayer of the righteous man availeth much, and the prayer of a righteous woman often avails more than that of a righteous man; so her prayers were answered, although she did not live to see the answer. For she died August, 1561, and Charlotte’s release did not take place till ten years later.
Meanwhile Charlotte in the nunnery made the best of her lot. Still she did not forget the last instructions of her mother, from whom she had been so cruelly torn. And when her mother died, and the papists would not even allow her to go and look at her mother’s dead face, her dissatisfaction increased. Now, while she was quietly spending her time in the nunnery, a terrible struggle was taking place in France between the Huguenots and the Romanists. Although she was away from it, yet she watched it with great interest; for, although a nun, she sympathized with the Huguenots. But so secret was her sympathy for them, that she was supposed to be a good Catholic. And having influence as a princess of the royal line of the Bourbons, her friends succeeded in gaining for her the high position of abbess. This gave her the opportunity of teaching, but in a very guarded way, the new doctrine of the reformation, and many of the nuns imbibed her views.
At length she came under suspicion, and was charged with perverting the nuns under her. She found herself in the greatest danger. The Romanists were about to begin proceedings against her. But just then (1572) providentially Normandy was invaded by the Huguenots, and her convent was thrown open by them. She saw the opportunity that providence gave her, and at once quitted convent life forever. To justify herself, she published the fact that she had been forced into the nunnery against her will, and revealed the protest she had signed many years before. This lessened the attacks of the Romanists on her, while it at the same time gained for her the confidence of the Huguenots, who saw that she had not been acting with duplicity. She at once fled to her oldest sister, the Duchess of Bouillon, who was warmly attached to the Reformed faith. She then fled from France, because of her danger, and went to Heidelberg, where she was welcomed by Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate as a daughter.
When her father heard of her flight from the convent, he was beside himself with rage. As it was not known where she was, the French court took up her case and ordered that a search be made for her, and that she should be severely punished. Then it was that the Elector Frederick, a truer father to her than her own, wrote to her father, March 15, 1572, notifying him that his daughter had found an asylum with him, and that he had received her because she had followed the dictates of her conscience. Her father was now angrier with her than ever. He was indignant that she had left the convent. Had she remained a Catholic, he might have forgiven her. But that she should have become a Protestant, the very thing he had tried for so many years to prevent, was too much for him to bear. He even went so far in his anger as to impugn Frederick’s motives by writing to him, “Can it be honorable for you to receive into your house children who have run away from their father? Is it not more worthy for you to advise them to return?” But Elector Frederick did not flinch in his devotion to Protestantism and answered her father in a dignified way, stating his willingness to return Charlotte, provided she would be granted free exercise of her Reformed religion in France. He also wrote in the same strain to the king of France. The king declared that he was willing to let her worship according to her Reformed faith, and even appointed messengers to go to Heidelberg to bring her to France, but her father was inflexible against her. “If she means to persist in the Protestant religion,” he said, “I would rather she would remain in Germany, than return to France to scandalize everybody, and be the misfortune of my old age.” The king’s messengers came to Heidelberg, but she declined to go to France, as her father would not consent to her religion. So she remained at Heidelberg with the Palatinate court.
Three pleasant years she spent there under the kindly care of the Elector Frederick. Then Prince William of Orange sued for her hand in marriage. It was a very suitable match, for he was the ruler of the Netherlands, and she was a princess of the royal line of France. But there were grave difficulties in the way, for when does the course of true love run smooth? It was necessary, for the sake of political peace, to get the king of France and her father to give their consent before the marriage could take place. The king, in his answer, refused to commit himself either way, and the Dutch court went on the principle that silence gives consent, especially as he said he would raise no objections. The French parliament finally gave their consent. But would her father give his consent? Although he had been most irreconcilable before, he now saw in it a brilliant marriage for his daughter to the leading statesman of Europe, and not only gave his consent, but an ample dowry. The marriage took place, June 12, 1575. It was a very happy marriage, for both were members of the Reformed Church and interested in the same aims, charities and hopes. She proved herself, as William’s brother, Count John of Nassau, said, “A wife distinguished by her virtue, piety and intelligence.”
But new cares and anxieties came to her with this marriage, for her husband was engaged in a deadly war with Spain. That country had done everything to defeat him and threw odium on his marriage because he had separated from his former wife, who had been unfaithful. William, therefore, was compelled to defend himself and his marriage, which he did by showing the king of Spain to be one of the blackest souls that ever ruled a nation. In June, 1580, the king offered a large reward of 25,000 crowns to any one who would bring William, alive or dead, to the king.
Charlotte was greatly alarmed [and] in constant fear for her husband. The next year what she feared happened. Two Spaniards, one of them a master of a bank at Antwerp and the other his servant, plotted to take William’s life. The master was to share the reward, but the servant was to do the deed.
Before the servant Jaurequay went to perform the fatal act on Sunday, March 18, 1582, he was absolved from all his sins by a Romish priest, who gave him the sacrament and also a charm to protect his life. The priest, fearing that his courage might fail him before he struck the fatal blow, accompanied him to the castle and gave him blessing on his diabolical work when they separated. Prince William had been to the Reformed church that morning and was at dinner when the assassin tried to enter the dining room, but was repulsed by the prince’s servants. But after dinner William was showing Count Laval some tapestry which had on it pictures of the Spanish cruelties. Then Jaurequay again tried to force his way, but the servants prevented him. William, however, innocently and unsuspectingly reproved the servants, and ordered him to be allowed to come, as he thought the man was some citizen who wanted to see him. The assassin, seeing his opportunity, stepped forward, and, putting his pistol over Count Laval’s shoulder, fired. The prince was wounded in the head, the bullet knocking out several teeth, passing through the lower part of the head, and out into the right cheek. It just grazed the jugular vein, passing so close to it as to cauterize it. For a moment William did not seem to realize what had happened, but it seemed to him as if the house had fallen. But immediately the prince, recovering himself, begged that the assassin be spared. However, the man was dead already. Charlotte, when she heard the report of the gun, rushed to her husband, and, seeing him covered with blood, fainted. When she recovered, she nursed him with the greatest care. It was found, however, that he was in no great danger, as the wound rapidly healed. The Reformed people of Holland were deeply grateful to providence for sparing their prince and leader. On May 2 they held a solemn thanksgiving service at Antwerp for his recovery, at which both William and Charlotte were present.
But the excitement and care proved too much for her. Almost immediately after that thanksgiving service she became sick with pleurisy and died. She was buried in the cathedral of Notre Dame at Antwerp. The cathedral, in which she was buried, contains many magnificent masterpieces, but none of these come up to her beauty of character, for her life was a living picture of sacrifice for, and consecration to, Christ. The spire of that cathedral is wondrously beautiful, being of marble, yet so delicately carved that its drapery makes it look, says one writer, as if the Brussels lace (for which Antwerp was so famous) had been turned into marble and laid on it as a tracery of white. Her character, like it, pure as marble and delicate with all the graces of spirituality, soars heavenward like that spire, and remains a loving witness to the power of the Reformed faith. She became the ancestress of kings, her daughter marrying the son of the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, who had so kindly shielded and befriended her, and Queen Victoria of England [was] thus a direct descendant of hers. Thus a nun became Reformed, and a princess became the mother of kings, but she is now a saint in the court of the King of kings.
Abridged from Famous Women of the Reformed Church, by J. I. Good.